Steve Hilton, grandson of hotelier Conrad N. Hilton, talks with Sister Anisia Kitaka, a member of the Little Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, during a 2012 visit to St. Francis Rehabilitation Center for Street Children in Nairobi, Kenya. Steve Hilton will soon retire as president and CEO of the foundation his grandfather established 70 years ago to support Catholic sisters all over the world. (CNS photo/courtesy Conrad N. Hilton Foundation)
Steve Hilton, grandson of hotelier Conrad N. Hilton, talks with Sister Anisia Kitaka, a member of the Little Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, during a 2012 visit to St. Francis Rehabilitation Center for Street Children in Nairobi, Kenya. Steve Hilton will soon retire as president and CEO of the foundation his grandfather established 70 years ago to support Catholic sisters all over the world. (CNS photo/courtesy Conrad N. Hilton Foundation)

WASHINGTON (CNS) — One of hotelier Conrad N. Hilton’s wishes in his final will was to support Catholic sisters all over the world, and in its 70 years, his foundation has helped accomplish this.

“Conrad had this lifelong respect and admiration for the sisters,” Steve Hilton, the foundation’s current president and CEO, told Catholic News Service in a phone interview from California.

Steve Hilton, Conrad’s grandson, announced March 25 that he will retire next year, and whoever his successor will be, he expects the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation to keep pursuing its mission to help Catholic sisters.

“Everything we do is based on (Conrad’s) wishes,” said Steve Hilton, who is 64. “I hope the next leader will embrace that same mission.”

Supporting the work of Catholic sisters is one of six primary focuses for the Hilton Foundation. The others include providing safe water, ending chronic homelessness, preventing substance abuse, helping children affected by HIV or AIDS and supporting older youth in foster care.

Conrad Hilton stressed the importance of helping sisters, the “protectors and defenders” of children, in his last will. Excerpts are posted on the foundation’s website.

“Give aid to … the sisters, who devote their love and life’s work for the good of mankind,” Conrad Hilton wrote. “They appeal especially to me of being deserving of help from the foundation.”

He requested that the largest part of the foundation’s benefactions goes to helping sisters everywhere.

This admiration for the Catholic sisters began in Conrad’s childhood, Steve Hilton said.

Conrad Hilton grew up in a Catholic home in Socorro, N.M. His mother sent him to a Catholic school in a nearby town where he studied catechism. This was his first experience of the sisters and their ministry.

“He was just impressed by their selflessness and the good work they were doing,” Steve said. “He carried that (admiration) through his entire life.”

A specific initiative jump-started by the Hilton Foundation is the Sisters Leadership Development Initiative, a program by the African Sisters Education Collaborative that strives to educate sisters of various African ministries on basic technology, leadership and financial management skills.

Sister Jane Wakahiu, a member of the Little Sisters of St. Francis who is project coordinator of the initiative, told CNS that Hilton approached the collaborative asking for such a program to be started. The foundation awarded a grant to help create it in 2007.

The program is now in its third phase, which began last year, and teaches web development to 274 sisters in eight African countries. Faculty members from partnering U.S. and African colleges teach these courses.

“I am forever grateful to the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation for living out the legacy of Mr. Hilton and (its) willingness to continue championing in the support of the education of Catholic sisters in Africa,” Sister Jane wrote on the African Sisters Education Collaborative website.

In February 2013, the Hilton Foundation also launched the Catholic Sisters Initiative to broaden the sisters’ impact by strengthening their congregations.

As a part of this initiative, the foundation gave the National Religious Retirement Office a grant of $2.5 million in January. It will be distributed over the course of three years.

The office is the coordinating body that oversees the annual Retirement Fund for Religious collection, the largest such national collection in the U.S. Catholic Church since its inception in 1988. It is jointly sponsored by the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Sister Janice Bader, a member of the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood who is executive director of the religious retirement office, said the majority of the money will go to help religious communities struggling with the upkeep and operation of underutilized buildings. One million will go to their annual distribution of grants to other religious communities.

“We’re very grateful for the money,” she said. “It really will help us to expand our services.”

In the search for a new president of the foundation, Steve Hilton said a critical point is to make sure his successor continues following Conrad’s wishes.

“One of the most important responsibilities is to be true to Conrad Hilton’s last will,” he said. “I take that very seriously.”

Originally, Steve Hilton had not considered joining the family’s foundation. But when the oyster farm in Hawaii where he had worked shut down, he moved back to California. The then-president of the foundation asked Steve if he would be interested in working there.

Steve became a program assistant in 1983 and president in 1998. He also became chairman and CEO of the foundation.

“I’m incredibly fortunate to have found my niche,” Steve Hilton said. “That doesn’t always happen all the time (with other people).”

Members of the Hilton family have not always presided over the foundation, Steve said, and so far, no family members have asked to be considered for the next position.

Steve’s retirement will take effect in fall 2015. He said he hopes to continue his position as chairman.

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